“It’s just…” I can’t meet her gaze. “I’ve never really had a friend before. I mean, I have. Online. But not in person. Not in a long time, at least. So…we’ll be friends after this, right? After the con?”
She puts her hands on her hips and tilts her head. “Now what kind of question is that? Of course we will.”
I finally look at her and drink up the only friend I’ve ever really had. Her chlorine-green hair, her piercings, the way she stands, shoulders back, feet apart, how she can walk into every room and instantly be the coolest person in it. “Thank you.”
“The costume was nothing. It was pretty easy, really—”
I stretch out my arms and wrap them around her because she’s just too badass to start a hug first. But she returns it. She returns it like the rib-crushing fiend she is.
EVEN THOUGH THE COSTUME’S DONE, WE decide to finish Starfield. I think that maybe it won’t be that bad watching it with someone else. Spoiler: it totally still is. Sage dabs at her eyes as the final credits roll and passes the tissue box to me. I tell her my theory, that the Black Nebula doesn’t kill Princess Amara, but sends her away. Like the Time Dragon does to Elphaba in Wicked.
“That’s a shitty consolation prize,” Sage moans.
My cell phone buzzes. I dig it out of my pocket and swipe my thumb over the lock screen instinctively; I was wondering when he’d text me tonight.
“The boy again?” she asks, dabbing at her mascara.
“Yeah, the boy.”
She sniffs and shakes off her tears, then turns to me with an eager look. “So what’s the deal with him? How did you meet? You just tricked me to the worst snot-fest in the history of me. I demand this as repayment.”
She has a point. I fiddle with my phone. “It started out as a wrong number, actually. Like you know those Buzzfeed articles where people text the wrong number while going into labor and then these randos show up with diapers and baby formula and they become besties?”
“No, but I’ll take your word that it happened.”
“Yeah, so, it’s kind of like that. He just texted the wrong number—I think he was looking for my dad because I inherited his phone. But then we just…I don’t know, we just kept talking and—”
“So you legit don’t know him,” she interrupts.
“I do know him.”
“Have you talked, though?”
I hold up my brick phone. “How do you think we’re communicating? Smoke signals?”
She waves away my sarcasm. “No, I mean actually talked. Like,” she holds her hand up like a phone, “here’s my number, call me maybe talked.”
I squirm. “Not exactly.”
Sage rolls her eyes. “Elle! He could be a sixty-year-old with a collection of American Girl Dolls in his basement for all you know.”
“He isn’t!” I cry. “He’s our age. And besides, I like texting him. It feels more, I don’t know, You’ve Got Mail-y.”
Sage stares at me quizzically, like I’m a Nox who’s just pledged allegiance to the Federation. “But haven’t you, like, wondered?”
I can’t meet her gaze because the truth is, I have wondered. What he sounds like, how he sounds, whether his words are laced with an accent or a lisp, deep or light or reedy or full.
I shrug. “He’s never given me any clues that he wants to talk. What if he doesn’t feel comfortable talking? Or he’s nervous about having a stutter or something?”
“What if he’s waiting for you to call first?” she argues.
“Maybe. But I mean…I don’t even know his real name.”
She sits up. Squints. Scrutinizes me. I’m about to add that I at least know he isn’t bald when she grabs my phone and in two quick steps reaches the other side of the room.
“Hey, give it back!”
She puts up a finger and lifts the phone to her ear. “Give me a sec.”
Panic surges in my chest. “What are you doing?”
I move so fast I don’t even realize that I’m yanking the phone out of her hand until I’ve already done it. We both hear the ringing stop. Carmindor answers the phone.
It’s soft. Deep. Male.
I slam END so fast I think I fracture my thumb. I shove my phone into my pocket so deep she’ll never be able to get it. I glare at her. “Happy now?”
Sage falls back on her beanbag, laughing. “Oh my god, you were ninja fast!”
“You know I had to.” She sits up on her elbows and tilts her head. “He sounds nice, Elle.”
I sit down beside her. “Yeah?”
“Yep. Certifiably not ax murder-y.” She shrugs. “At least I think so.”
“Well, thank god.” I swallow the lump in my throat. I’m not sure how I’m going to explain this to Carmindor. He did sound nice. Sweet. A voice I could listen to for hours. But would he ever want to listen to me?
I glance down at my phone and suddenly my blood runs cold. “Oh my god,” I whisper and jerk up to my feet. “Oh shit.”
Sage glances over at me. “What?”
“It’s ten after nine.” My hands start to shake. I stuff the cosplay uniform into my duffel bag and loop it over my shoulder. “I’m so late—so late. Can you take me halfway home?”
Sage shambles to her feet and salutes. “I’ll get you home faster than Greased Lightning.”
With heart pounding, I fly up the stairs after her. We’ve worked too hard. The con is tomorrow. I can’t ruin this now.
LAST TAKE, I THINK. DON’T RUIN IT.
“And…action!” the director yells. The set plunges into deathly silence. The crew looks on. Then we’re moving like a machine: graceful, precise, well rehearsed, in the moment. The green screen fades, the boom disappears, the camera becomes a thought in the back of my mind.
I step into Carmindor at the helm of his ship, the good Prospero. I’m here, in command of my crew. And shit is about to go down.
“Forty-two clicks to the left,” I bark to Euci, “and ignite!”
“Aye!” Calvin replies at the head of the bridge, his fingers twitching just enough to ease the ship to the left. And in that moment, he’s not the jerk B-lister with a perpetual chip on his shoulder but the Federation’s best pilot, my best friend, and navigator of the Prospero. Three Nox ships are coming in from our starboard, and we have thirty percent power left. There’s no one else I’d trust to get us out of this mess.
The helm of the Prospero goes quiet as we wait for the three red dots blinking on the screen to fall off, but they keep pursuing us toward the Black Nebula. It looms against us, the size of three suns, swirling, catching, inhaling everything, growing larger with each atom broken down and absorbed. The galaxy’s only hope of stopping it is aboard this ship.
Another torpedo slams into our back hull. Red lights flare across one of the screens. Euci flicks it away.
“Four clicks faster,” I order.
“We’re already shaking apart as it is,” Euci warns. “If we get too close—”
“I said four clicks!” I snap.
He twitches his head slightly—a throwback to the show’s Euci, who always tossed his head to the left whenever he knew Carmindor was wrong but did as his captain commanded.
A boom mic hovers above us, the gaping eye of three lenses staring from just off the bridge. One of them, on a pulley, draws closer.
In front of me the navigation panel glows like an oversized keyboard. Beside me, Princess Amara wrings her hands nervously.
“Ah’blen,” Jess says, and the word fills me with a strange sort of longing. A reminder of Elle. I push it down.
“We can do this,” I tell her. “We have to.”
“We’re going to die—we’re all going to die if you get closer.”
Another missile slams into the back of the Prospero, destroying one of the thrusters. The ship careens out of warp-speed. Everyone is thrown forward with the invisible weight of our descent. The princess stumbles against the controls and catches my hand. She squeezes it tight, and our eyes meet.
The set is quiet. We’re quiet. The stars, in all their mass and all their time, orbit us. She smiles timidly, and as Carmindor, I know she is the only star in the sky I care about. Red lights flare across all the screens. Warnings boom through the speakers. One more hit and Prospero will be space trash.
“You know what I have to do, ah’blen,” she whispers.
“No, I won’t let you—I can’t let you. There has to be another—”
She kisses my forehead. “I hear the Observation Deck is nice this time of year,” she tells me, and then she slips her hand out of mine and leaves the bridge.
Watching the show, this is where I scream at the TV. Call Carmindor stupid. Because this is where the princess looks back at him, this is where she waits to see if he’ll try to change her mind, waits for him to look back at her. But he doesn’t know that he’s supposed to look at her. He’s trying to decide if his soul could survive killing his entire crew for the sake of the universe. If he’ll be damned in the afterlife. If, in the next universe over, he’ll get another chance.